Independent and Critical Thinking in Education - RSA

Independent and Critical Thinking in Education


  • Picture of Joshua Hillis FRSA
    Joshua Hillis FRSA
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Studying conflicts equips students to form their own opinions and to evaluate the information they interact with in a sophisticated manner.

In 2007, a Historical Association report commissioned by the The Department for Education and Skills identified that many teachers often avoided controversy in the classroom when focused on history. It found that at the same time, there is widespread recognition that the way many past events are perceived and understood can stir emotions and controversies within and across communities.

Little has changed in twelve years as successive governments, agencies and school senior leadership teams have have not rectified this problem. Nor have they taken advantage of the opportunity to improve education.

Parallel Histories is a grassroots initiative led by teachers that produces the resources they need to teach controversial history. The current concerns about British public debate and conversation means it is imperative that the above stakeholders follow the lead of Parallel Histories and other initiatives, and implement the recommendations of the 2007 report.

When students are not taught about controversial historical topics, they might rely on social media and other digital news sources for their information. Such open access empowers but can constrain students’s learning when the topic polarises communities in the UK.

An illustration: Muslim and Jewish students at a recent Parallel Histories workshop explained that they received their information about the Israel-Palestine conflict from sites sympathetic to the Palestinians or Israelis respectively. The students said that prior to the workshop they could not understand why anyone could be sympathetic to the other perspective on that conflict.

This anecdotal evidence calls attention to the importance of teaching the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the varying interpretations of it; the lack of education about the conflict had alienated the students before they had even met. Yet in 2016, only 2000 students out of the 250,000 sitting GCSE History had studied the Middle East. Recently, the remaining publisher of a GCSE textbook on the Middle East was accused of bias in the national press, raising further concerns from teachers whether it is worth teaching this topic.

The main constraints inhibiting the teaching of controversial history were identified as: the encouragement of teachers to play safe with content selection and pedagogy; paucity of resources; the desire to avoid offending; and, the demands of external specifications above the age of 14.

To alleviate these constraints, Parallel Histories was founded in 2017 and we have gone on to develop the resources that the 2007 report called for the government and key agencies to commission.

Research in Israel and the Palestinian territories into methodologies for teaching the history of the conflict confirmed the report’s recommendation for resources that teach a variety of interpretations on a topic. The subsequent resources are videos that present two competing interpretations of topics such as the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Sunni-Shi’a divide in Islam, and a forthcoming series on Partition in 1947. Teachers have described such an approach as removing the fear of accusations of bias because students investigate both sides and because teachers do not present their own views. Short film competitions and multiple school debate forums are extracurricular approaches that have got around the demands of exam specifications.

Alleviating constraints is not the only element to teaching controversial history: such teaching offers opportunities to develop students’s critical thinking, analysis of evidence, and public speaking. The RSA asks what kind of education will enable a world where everyone is able to participate in creating a better future? One answer is students working together with students from different religious and socioeconomic backgrounds to investigate competing interpretations of controversial topics. Students do not feel alienated when their perspectives are properly represented alongside other perspectives. Students develop substantive knowledge of a particular conflict. They deepen their disciplinary knowledge of the analysis of evidence and construction of arguments. Students learn to discuss complex and emotional topics in front of their peers in debate forums. They also learn to listen while others make the alternative argument. Twelve schools have taken advantage of these opportunities by participating in the first twelve months of debate forums.

Opportunities to develop independent thinking and inquisitive students need the support of government departments, exam boards, Ofsted, Ofqual, other agencies and school leaders. The 2007 report made a number of recommendations for such institutions, which are even more relevant today to address concerns about polarised public debate and social media bubbles. Government reinforcement of the importance of teaching controversial history, exam boards offering more controversial topics at GCSE and A Level History, school leaders rewarding teachers for the promotion of debate and risk-taking and ensuring the teaching of controversial issues is a whole school issue- all of these would reduce the constraints on teachers and take advantage of the opportunities of teaching controversial subjects.

Joshua Hillis FRSA is Assistant Editor at Parallel Histories. Joshua was awarded a Fellowship from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust this year in order to develop his work on this topic at Parallel Histories.

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